Antonio Sanchez: Immigrant Songs

Chronicling the migrant’s struggle with his boldly rhythm-centric approach to musical storytelling

Antonio Sanchez (photo by Justin Bettman)

When Antonio Sanchez eats at restaurants in New York, he’ll often ask the busboys where they’re from. Sanchez, Pat Metheny’s drummer for the past 17 years and the leader of his own band, Migration, is from Mexico City, so he identifies with his fellow Latino immigrants. Sometimes he’ll get into long conversations with them, and those talks linger in his head when he’s composing new music.

“The accusation against immigrants is that they’re lazy, they don’t pay taxes and just soak up resources,” he says. “But when I talk to these guys, it’s obvious that the truth is the exact opposite. No one works harder than they do.”

Sanchez, who became a U.S. citizen in October of 2016, at the age of 44, is angry about the current Republican backlash against immigration. But how can he express those feelings? It’s not as if he were an essayist or song lyricist who can channel that rage into words, or a trumpeter or pianist who can translate that fury into melody. Sanchez is a drummer. His instrument is commonly assumed to be limited to rhythm. But Sanchez is determined to refute that notion.

Sanchez widens that hole with his new album, Bad Hombre (CAM Jazz). The back cover of the CD presents a mugshot photo of the drummer in profile, and proclaims in white letters against a black background: “All tracks written, arranged, produced and performed by Antonio Sanchez.” And while those tracks include a healthy dose of electronica, it’s clear that the keyboards and programming are usually accompanying the drums and not the other way around.

Sanchez confirms this impression in early August, during a conversation the morning of his bandleader debut at the Newport Jazz Festival. Wearing green cargo shorts, a silver earring and a black T-shirt and sporting a sparse beard, he leans forward in a plush chair in the lobby of his hotel and explains how the new album came into being. “After the success of the soundtrack,” he recalls, “I wanted to do a drum-oriented project that was more than just a lot of drum solos. As a listener, I might listen to that kind of record once and never again. But I’d been listening to a lot of electronic music, and I thought that might be a good complement to the drums. But I didn’t want to program a lot of loops and then play over them. I hate drum-clinic music where you’re going crazy over prerecorded tracks. I wanted it to be interactive.”

When he was shopping for a new home a couple of years ago, the first request he made to the real-estate agents was “Show me the basement.” The agents had never encountered such an approach to house-buying, but they obliged by showing him a lot of cellars. He found a great basement in the Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights with a nice house attached, and after moving in at the end of 2015, the first thing he did was convert the lowest floor into a recording studio. “As soon as the studio was set up,” he says, “I recorded hours and hours of myself drumming alone. There was no pre-written music, but I might give myself rules, such as ‘Just play this part of the kit’ or ‘Speed up and then play the cymbals.’ I had all the time in the world, and I wanted to have hours of music to choose from for each track.”

Sanchez is on the road a lot, with Metheny and Migration, so he records as much as he can when he’s home and then takes the tapes on tour. On planes, in hotels and in dressing rooms, he listens to the tracks obsessively until he finds certain sections that he especially likes; then he begins layering electronic sounds onto the drum tracks while trying to make the master track an acceptable length. Sometimes he likes a particular sound so much that it inspires a new composition and more drum improvisation. “That’s why I say it’s interactive,” he explains, “because the keyboard is reacting to the drums, and sometimes the drums are reacting to the keys. It was completely intuitive; I had no master plan. It’s not like I sat down and said, ‘Now I’m going to play a song about a guy crossing the Rio Grande.’ It was more that my feelings come out when I’m drumming, and because I had all that anxiety about the immigration situation, that came out in the improvisations.”

It’s one thing to recognize those feelings in your own drumming, but it’s quite another to make the listener recognize them too. This is always a challenge in instrumental music—especially in music limited to drums and electronica. So Sanchez sought out ways to provide clues for the listener without being too explicit. The biggest clue is the album’s title, Bad Hombre, taken from Donald Trump’s notorious accusation about the criminality of Mexican immigrants.

Reinforcing that connection is the album’s prelude, “Bad Hombre Intro,” a sound collage of a mariachi band and Sanchez’s grandfather reciting a story about the Mexican Revolution over a drum beat. It ends with Sanchez’s own electronically filtered voice declaring, “We’re the bad hombres, and we’re not getting out.” This segues into “Bad Hombre,” a drum-and-synth-bass duet that suggests a remix of Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western soundtracks. The bass pattern holds steady, but the drumming quickens like the pulse of an unshaven gunslinger in a poncho and wide-brimmed hat.

The most descriptive track is “The Crossing,” where the bass drum evokes the sound of footsteps getting closer and closer as a whooshing synth sound suggests the desert wind. This time it’s the bleeps and burbles of electronica that represent the jangling nerves of the traveler as he nears the border. Suddenly he’s across; his nerves calm, and the footsteps grow bolder as they head north.

But most of the album’s 10 tracks are not as easy to decipher as those three. The other seven wordless tunes are full of emotions—the ominous dread of “Fire Trail,” the hopeful yearning of “Distant Glow” and the chaotic pressure of “BBO”—but it would be difficult to tie those feelings to specific causes without the clues mentioned above. With or without those clues, however, the passions are vivid because Sanchez uses the drums to do a lot more than just keep time. They tell stories with musical characters progressing through a narrative form. “When I studied classical piano in Mexico City, we learned forms,” he explains. “Without form you don’t have as much impact. In my clinics, I always emphasize motive development. I go back to Max Roach’s ‘For Big Sid,’ and point out how he created motifs that he could repeat, vary and develop. When I’m composing for my band, I build the forms as I write the music. But I took a different approach on Bad Hombre; I improvised for hours and hours without form and then added the structure in the editing. The result is the same: Form organizes music for the listener.”

The Composer & the Drummer

Sanchez demonstrated this storytelling technique later that afternoon at the Newport Jazz Festival’s Harbor Stage. Wearing a black T-shirt with the silver design of a psychedelic Day of the Dead skull, he sat behind his enormous drum kit: kick, one rack tom, two floor toms, three snares, hi-hat and six other cymbals. He was positioned sideways so he could look directly at his four musicians: his wife and vocalist Thana Alexa, saxophonist Seamus Blake, keyboardist John Escreet and bassist Matt Brewer.

Migration at Newport: Matt Brewer, Thana Alexa, Seamus Blake, Antonio Sanchez (photo by Alan Nahigian)
Migration at Newport: Matt Brewer, Thana Alexa, Seamus Blake, Antonio Sanchez (photo by Alan Nahigian)

They began with the first four movements of Sanchez’s five-movement, 90-minute work that comprised his 2015 album, The Meridian Suite. When Escreet announced the initial theme on the piano, Sanchez quickly reinforced not only its rhythmic phrasing but also its melodic contours. Those motifs became characters who travel across the landscape of the piece, both its rocky crescendos and its placid valleys. “The Meridian Suite is my most ambitious composition,” Sanchez says. “It’s a musical novel where the characters develop over 90 minutes. I was commissioned by the George Wein/Doris Duke Artistic Programming Fund to compose a new piece to premiere at this year’s festival. I knew it would be following The Meridian Suite, so I wrote something that would fit.”

He called it “Newport,” and it began with a ballad melody framed by the composer’s brushwork. Alexa’s wordless vocalizing brought the theme into focus, and Sanchez shifted the piece into a higher gear. It climaxed once and subsided into quiet solos by Escreet and Brewer before climaxing a second time, with Blake blowing a tenor solo over a drum crescendo. Once again the drums were defining not only the time but also the themes. “I do a lot of clinics, and I explain to people that the drums can be a very melodic instrument,” he says. “It’s really a mini-orchestra with a lot of sounds. Each drum is a different note, and you can tune them so they’re in harmony; I tune mine to the root, the fifth and a third or fourth.”

“The drums are an inherently melodic instrument,” adds Migration bassist Matt Brewer, “and the voice leading that occurs between all the different pitches of the drum set automatically creates a kind of harmony. I can hear this as much in our ensemble as I can with Antonio’s solo drum pieces.”

The cinematic nature of Sanchez’s music is obviously influenced by his work on Birdman. When the movie’s director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, invited Sanchez to create the score, the drummer jumped at the chance, not only because he loves film but also because he owed the director a tremendous debt. Iñárritu had once been a disc jockey in Mexico City, and his show is where a young Sanchez discovered many influential musicians—including Metheny.

Following Birdman, Sanchez composed the music for Politica, Manual Instrucciones, a Spanish documentary about an emergent leftist political party in Madrid, and he’s now providing Bad Hombre-like music for a new TV series based on Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty. But he gives a lot of credit for his interest in narrative music to Metheny. “Pat is one of the greatest storytellers in music,” Sanchez says. “A lot of modern jazz sounds complex just for the sake of complexity, but Pat is the master of writing accessible melodies over complex harmonies and time signatures. I’m a sucker for a great melody, because it’s like a character in a story who’s revealing a secret.”

Adds Metheny, “Antonio has been able to adapt the elements of drumming that he was interested in and excelled at to my thing, in a way that allowed him to do what he does best while still serving my music as it has developed over a long period of time.”

Antonio Sanchez and Pat Metheny in 2003 (photo by Alan Nahigian)
Antonio Sanchez and Pat Metheny in 2003 (photo by Alan Nahigian)

In 2000, Metheny twice encountered Sanchez when the latter was playing in pianist Danilo Pérez’s trio. Metheny was impressed with the way the drummer made himself heard in a large outdoor venue in Turin, but he was totally won over by the way Sanchez mesmerized a small London club on a ballad. As soon as they started playing together, Metheny knew that this was the drummer he’d been looking for. “We had so much to talk about musically,” Metheny says. “We have that connection you only find a few times along the way. We can both do what we do best as individuals and yet find the space to create a collective sound that adds up to something beyond either one of us. What is great with Antonio is that it isn’t particularly limited to [being] this thing or that thing—it could be almost anything. That fits exactly with my ecumenical sense of how this music can rise above any partisan aspect of genre.”

Learning to play with Metheny, Sanchez says, is not unlike learning to play bebop or fusion. As with those styles, Metheny has his own lexicon and parameters to understand. There’s a sonority you have to fit in with; you have to know when to leave space and when to build intensity. Sanchez recalls a time when he invited his friend Scott Colley to play a trio gig with Metheny. Afterward, Colley told Sanchez, “Wow, you play so different with Pat.” These days, Sanchez embraces the role of easing newcomers into the band. “Antonio has a personal maturity and awareness that is really rare, and that has come to mean as much or more to me than anything else as the years have gone by,” Metheny says. “He values the sanctity of the bandstand the same way I do. With both of us maintaining that vibe, new folks who come along understand very quickly by example what is at stake there.”

Linda May Han Oh, the most recent bassist in Metheny’s band, agrees. “Bass and drums have to be a team,” she says, “and it’s incredibly rewarding when you feel you’re in that situation. Antonio balances his intuitive support with musical and rhythmic ideas that stoke the fire. As a bassist, you have to keep strong when that happens.”

Carving Out an Identity

Raised in an intellectual middle-class home, Sanchez does not fit the common stereotype of a Mexican immigrant. His mother, Susana López Aranda, is a noted film critic, and his grandfather Ignacio López Tarso is one of Mexico’s most famous actors. “I saw that you could make a living by doing what you love at a very high level, and that was encouraging,” he remembers. “My mom is the whole reason I started playing music, because she loved rock ’n’ roll—Led Zeppelin and the Police. She joked that Ginger Baker was my real father. She was never into jazz that much, but when I got interested, she did too and bought all the records. We’d listen to them together; I would give my reaction, and she would give hers. She’s a critic, of course, so I got that analytic approach from her.”

Antonio Sanchez at age 9, after he received his first drum kit
Antonio Sanchez at age 9, after he received his first drum kit (photo courtesy of the artist)

Like most Latin musicians who come to the U.S., Sanchez found that the easiest way to get gigs was to play Latin jazz. He did that with Paquito D’Rivera and Pérez, but he grew restless. He wanted to play bebop when it felt right, fusion when it felt right and Mexican music when it felt right. Like many immigrants, he wanted to find the ideal balance between his old country and his new one. Now, when that balance is threatened by a resurgent right-wing movement, he values the two-sidedness of his life more than ever.

“I’ve struggled for years with my dual identity,” Sanchez says. “I’ll always be Mexican, because I grew up there, my family’s there and I go back all the time. But I don’t feel completely Mexican, because my entire professional life has been here. I live here, and I’m more involved in what’s going on here. I’d been planning to become a U.S. citizen for a long time, but I hurried up when I saw that Trump might have a shot. Residency is a privilege that can be taken away. Citizenship is a right.”